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Differentiation is a complex topic which takes most of a semester for most peopl

e to learn--it's one of the three important ideas in basic calculus (the others
being the limit and the integral). Because there is a lot to know about differen
tiation, I can't tell you everything about it in this small space, but I can try
to give you a crash course.
"Differentiation" means "the process of taking the derivative." I'm going to use
the word "derivative" for the rest of my answer.
The "derivative" measures how fast something is changing. For example, suppose y
ou are driving in a car. At any instant, the car is in some particular place (ma
ybe you're 50 miles away from home); but the place it's in is changing at a cert
ain rate (maybe you're traveling at 25 miles per hour). "Derivative" means the *
rate of change* of some quantity. So, in this case, the derivative of your posit
ion is your velocity--the speed at which you're traveling measures how fast your
position is changing.
Derivatives are useful any time something that can be measured is changing. This
is an *extremely* broadly useful idea. I can't even begin to describe all the a
pplications, but here are a couple:
* Physics (with derivatives, one can understand gravity, electric current, waves
, and many, many other things--calculus is believed by many physicists to be the
most important advancement in physics ever, even more important than Einstein's
discoveries)
* Optimization (by using derivatives, it turns out that one can answer questions
like "What are the dimensions of the rectangular box with smallest surface area
if I want the volume to be 1000 cm^3?" or "Given all this data about how much c
onsumers buy of my product when I adjust the price, what is the best price to ma
ximize my profit?")
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One takes the derivative of a function. It is necessary to understand functions
before understanding derivatives.
If the function is called f(x), then the derivative is usually written f ' (x) [
read as "f prime"]. The derivative f ' (x), when you input a value in for x, mea
sures how quickly the original function f(x) is changing at that particular valu
e.
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To differentiate a *polynomial*, one only needs a few rules. I'll give those rul
es, and give a brief justification for each. The justifications probably aren't
going to make full sense, because it's not possible to explain everything in suc
h a small space, but you can take them for what they are.
* [Constant Rule] The derivative of a constant is zero. (By a constant, I mean a
function which always outputs the same number regardless of its input. So, for
example, the derivative of the function 10 is 0. This is because if something is
constant, then its rate of change is zero, because it's not changing at all.)
* [Derivative of x] The derivative of x is 1. (This is because, for example, if
you are traveling in a car in such a way that after x minutes, you have traveled
x miles, then you are traveling at 1 mile per minute the entire time.)
* [Sum Rule] The derivative of the sum of two things is the sum of the derivativ
es of those things. (So, for example, the derivative of x + 10 is 1 + 0, or 0. W
hen two things are added, we can take the derivative of each separately.)
* [Power Rule] The derivative of x^n, where x is a variable and n is some number
, is n * x^(n - 1). [For example, the derivative of x^2 is 2x^(2 - 1) = 2x^1 = 2
x; the derivative of x^7 is 7x^(7 - 1) = 7x^6. The reason behind this is too com
plicated to justify in a small space to someone who doesn't know any calculus.]
So, the process behind taking the derivative of x^3 + x^2 + 10 is
* Notice that we can take the derivative of each piece separately and add them t
ogether, because of the Sum Rule
* Notice that the derivative of x^3 is 3x^(3 - 1), because of the Power Rule, wh
ich I can rewrite as 3x^2
* Notice that the derivative of x^2 is 2x^(2 - 1), because of the Power Rule, wh
ich I can rewrite as 2x, because x^1 = x
* Notice that the derivative of 10 is 0, because of the Constant Rule
So the derivative of the function x^3 + x^2 + 10 is the function 3x^2 + 2x.
This means that if you're driving a car in such a way that, after x minutes, it
turns out you've traveled x^3 + x^2 + 10 miles, then your speed after x minutes
was 3x^2 + 2x miles per hour.
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Some more examples:
* The derivative of x^7 + x^4 + 3 is 7x^6 + 4x^3
* The derivative of x^2 + x^5 is 2x + 5x^4
Do you see why, from the rules above?
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If you want to learn about differentiation from a book, find the book "What is C
alculus about?" by W.W. Sawyer. It's full of real-world examples and discussions
. (It's a normal book, not a textbook.)
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There is a program online which takes derivatives and displays all steps for you
at http://calc101.com/webMathematica/deriva... . (If you put something in there
, leave the boxes with just "x" in them alone, and only read the output until it
starts talking about the "second derivative.") Note that the notation d/dx [ ..
. ] means the derivative of what's inside the brackets.
Try putting in x^3 + x^2 + 10 and see what happens. The explanation should be su
bstantially the same as what I said above.
Asker's Rating & Comment
5 out of 5
Just what I was looking for - a great explanation which was easy to understand